Five men were convicted Tuesday of plotting to join forces with al-Qaida to destroy Chicago’s Sears Tower and bomb FBI offices in hopes of igniting an anti-government insurrection.
The jury in Miami acquitted another member of the so-called “Liberty City Six” in the sixth day of deliberations. Two previous trials ended in mistrials when jurors could not agree on the men’s guilt or innocence.
They were arrested in June 2006 on charges of plotting terrorism with an undercover FBI informant they believed was from al-Qaida. Defense attorneys said terrorist talk recorded on dozens of FBI audio and video tapes was not serious and the men wanted only money.
Ringleader Narseal Batiste, 35, was the only one convicted of all four terrorism-related conspiracy counts, including plotting to provide material support to terrorists and conspiring to wage war against the U.S. Batiste, who was on the vast majority of FBI recordings, faces up to 70 years in prison.
Batiste’s right-hand man, 29-year-old Patrick Abraham, was convicted on three counts and faces 50 years behind bars. Convicted on two counts and facing 30 years are 24-year-old Burson Augustin, 25-year-old Rotschild Augustine and 33-year-old Stanley Grant Phanor. Naudimar Herrera, 25, was cleared of all four charges.
U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard set sentencing for July 27 for the five convicted men, most of whom are Haitian or have Haitian ancestry. They lived in Miami’s downtrodden inner-city neighborhood known as Liberty City.
Herrera criticized the prosecution as “bogus” and insisted the men banded together not for terrorism but to explore ways to lift up the impoverished, drug-infested area.
“It’s not right,” Herrera said outside the courthouse. “We were really all about helping the community.”
The jury endured a two-month trial, then had to restart deliberations last week after one juror was excused for illness and a second was booted off the panel for being uncooperative. After the verdicts were read, court security officials escorted the jury — whose names were kept secret — out of the building before they could be interviewed.
The arrests were initially hailed as a major success by President George W. Bush’s administration, an example of disrupting potential attacks at the earliest possible stages. But two previous juries struggled with the lack of solid evidence indicating the men took any steps to pull off such major mass assaults, such as possessing bomb-making manuals or building blueprints.
“This was a difficult trial, and we thank all the prosecutors and agents involved, whose efforts resulted in todays successful conclusion,” said Miami U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta, a holdever Bush appointee.
Prosecutors Richard Gregorie and Jacqueline Arango focused on the group’s intent as captured on dozens of FBI audio and video recordings. Batiste is repeatedly heard espousing violence against the U.S. government and saying the men should start a “full ground war” that would “kill all the devils.”
“I want to fight some jihad,” Batiste says on one tape.
A key piece of evidence is an FBI video of the entire group pledging an oath of allegiance, or “bayat,” to al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden in a March 16, 2006, ceremony led by an FBI informant posing as “Brother Mohammed” from al-Qaida. Testimony also showed the men took photographs and video of possible targets in Miami, including the FBI building, a courthouse complex and a synagogue.
But Batiste, who testified in all three trials, insisted he was only going along with Mohammed so he could obtain $50,000 or more for his struggling construction business and a nascent community outreach program. Batiste was leader of a Miami chapter of a sect known as the Moorish Science Temple, which combines elements of Christianity, Judaism and Islam and does not recognize the U.S. government’s full authority.
Defense lawyers also claimed the case was an FBI setup driven by informants who manipulated the group.
“This is a manufactured crime,” Batiste attorney Ana M. Jhones said earlier in the trial.
A seventh man who was acquitted after the first 2007 trial, 34-year-old Lyglenson Lemorin, is being deported to his native Haiti anyway. Less stringent immigration laws make it easier for U.S. officials to use the terrorism allegations against Lemorin.